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Full text of "Men Of Mathematics"

THE GREAT ALGORIST
May 1825. During the first two years he spent Ms time about
equally between philosophy, philology, and mathematics. In
the philological seminar Jacobi attracted the favourable atten-
tion of P. A. Boeckh, a renowned classical scholar who brought
out (among other works) a fine edition of Pindar. Boeckh,
luckily for mathematics, failed to convert Ms most promising
pupil to classical studies as a life interest. In mathematics not
much was offered for an ambitious student and Jacobi con-
tinued Ms private study of the masters. The university lectures
in mathematics he characterized briefly and sufficiently as
twaddle. Jacobi was usually blunt and to the point, although
he knew how to be as subservient as any courtier when trying
to insinuate some deserving mathematical friend into a worthy
position.
While Jacobi was diligently making a mathematician of
himself Abel was already well started on the very road which
was to lead Jacobi to fame. Abel had written to Holmboe on
4 August 1823 that he was busy with elliptic functions: 4This
little work, you will recall, deals with the inverses of the
elliptic transcendents, and I proved something [that seemed]
impossible; I begged Degen to read it as soon as he could from
one end to the other, but he could find no false conclusion, nor
understand where the mistake was;' God knows how I shall get
myself out of it.* By a curious coincidence Jacobi at last made
up his mind to put his all on mathematics almost exactly when
Abel wrote this. Two years' difference in the ages of young men
around twenty (Abel was twenty-one, Jacobi nineteen) count
for more than two decades of maturity. Abel got a tremendous
start but Jacobi, unaware that he had a competitor in the race,
soon caught up. Jacobi's first great work was in Abel's field of
elliptic functions. Before considering this we shall outline his
busy life.
Having decided to go into mathematics for all he was worth,
Jacobi wrote to Ms uncle Lehmann his estimate of the labour
he had undertaken. 'The huge colossus wMch the works of
Euler, Lagrange, and Laplace have raised demands the most
prodigious force and exertion of thought if one is to penetrate
into its inner nature and not merely rummage about on its
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